Eating Healthy With Anxiety

Do you ever feel like you have butterflies in your stomach when you feel anxious? Those gut feelings may be trying to tell you something about the relationship between nutrition and anxiety. Your digestive system and brain are constantly communicating, so the foods you eat may affect your mental health. This post will review how food and anxiety are related and which foods help with anxiety.

Anxiety disorders are the most commonly diagnosed mental health conditions. Over 40 million US adults have an anxiety disorder. Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • excessive worrying
  • irritability
  • tension
  • difficulty concentrating
  • increased heart rate
  • digestive problems

Treatment for anxiety can include medication, therapy, and lifestyle changes. If you struggle with anxiety, you can meet with a care provider at Cerebral to help you find the best plan for you.

How are nutrition and anxiety related?

In anxiety, areas of the brain involved in the flight or fight response are very active. When you experience stress and anxiety, your brain sends signals to alert other areas of the body. This response can affect your mood and lead to physical symptoms, like a racing heart and upset stomach.

Your gut also sends signals to your brain. The bacteria in your large intestine make chemicals called gut peptides and neurotransmitters like serotonin. Gut peptide signals can affect your response to stress, as well as your digestion, hunger levels, and food intake. 

When your gut bacteria are flourishing, they make a healthy amount of serotonin and have a positive effect on areas of the brain involved in stress. Negative changes in gut bacteria have been linked to changes in the brain and higher levels of stress and anxiety. 

In fact, people with anxiety tend to have less diverse and rich populations of beneficial gut bacteria. It is estimated that 60% of people with anxiety also have irritable bowel syndrome. Meanwhile, 40% of people with irritable bowel diseases have anxiety.

How does food affect anxiety symptoms?

Although your food choices can have a big impact on your gut bacteria and mental health, nutrition is just one of many factors that affect symptoms. Diet changes are not a replacement for standard care for anxiety, but they can complement it.

Foods that reduce anxiety

Fiber-rich foods

Fiber is a type of carbohydrate that is digested slowly and provides food for your beneficial gut bacteria. Eating enough fiber helps stabilize blood sugar, energy, and fullness levels, which can promote feelings of calm.

Fiber sources include:

  • Whole grains. Examples are whole wheat pasta/bread/cereal, brown rice, quinoa, barley
  • Pulses. These include beans, chickpeas, and lentils
  • Fruits. Good examples are berries, apples, pears, citrus fruits, avocado
  • Vegetables. Some examples are carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, artichokes, Brussels sprouts
  • Nuts and seeds. These include almonds, pistachios, chia seeds, flaxseeds 

Probiotics

Probiotic foods, such as fermented foods, contain live bacteria that can colonize your gut. Beneficial bacteria like Lactobacillus and Bifidobacterium play an important role in producing “feel-good” neurotransmitters like serotonin. Some research suggests fermented foods can help with social anxiety and promote happiness

Probiotic sources include:

  • yogurt
  • miso
  • tempeh
  • sauerkraut
  • tofu

Omega-3s 

Anxiety often occurs alongside depression. And both conditions can increase inflammation in the body. Since omega-3 fatty acids have known anti-inflammatory properties, researchers think they may help improve symptoms of depression and anxiety. Two to three servings of omega-3 rich fatty fish per week has been linked to decreased anxiety

Omega-3 sources include:

  • fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines, anchovies
  • walnuts
  • flaxseeds
  • seaweed
  • algae

Protein

Eating enough protein can help you feel fuller throughout the day. This can promote calm and decrease anxiety related to hunger. A building block of protein molecules called tryptophan helps with serotonin production. This in turn can help calm the anxious brain. Eating carbohydrates with tryptophan-rich protein sources optimizes how the brain uses tryptophan.

Protein sources with tryptophan include:

  • soy foods
  • eggs
  • chicken
  • turkey
  • milk
  • pumpkin seeds

Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the best minerals for anxiety because it helps regulate activity in areas of your body involved in the stress response. Not getting enough magnesium has been linked to more severe anxiety.

Magnesium sources include:

  • pumpkin seeds
  • chia seeds
  • almonds
  • spinach
  • cashews
  • peanuts
  • soy milk
  • edamame
  • potatoes
  • brown rice

Zinc

Zinc is involved in regulating signals between cells, including receptors for calming neurotransmitters. Some evidence suggests zinc can help reduce anxiety. 

Zinc sources include: 

  • oysters
  • beef
  • crab
  • pork
  • beans 
  • fortified breakfast cereal
  • chicken
  • pumpkin seeds

Tea

Green tea contains the amino acid theanine. Theanine has a calming effect and promotes serotonin and dopamine production, which may help with mood disorders like anxiety. Taking 200 mg of theanine, equivalent to about 8 cups of green tea, has been linked to lower anxiety levels.

Chamomile tea contains a plant compound called apigenin. Apigenin binds to the same receptors in the brain as some anti-anxiety medications to produce a calming effect. 

Foods that worsen anxiety

Western diets

Western diets tend to be high in saturated fat and refined carbohydrates. These have been linked to less healthy gut bacteria and anxiety. Refined carbohydrates like candy and processed snack foods can also cause a spike and crash in blood sugar and do not keep you full for very long. This rollercoaster feeling can amplify symptoms of anxiety and more thoughts about food. 

Caffeine

Caffeine overstimulates areas of the brain that help you respond to threats, which can worsen anxiety. In one study on caffeine and anxiety, 100 mg of caffeine was not associated with increased anxiety, but 400 mg and over was. For reference, a 16-oz drip coffee from a coffee chain has about 310 mg of caffeine. 

Alcohol

People with social anxiety disorder often use alcohol as “liquid courage” to cope with social situations. But this population is four times more likely to develop an alcohol use disorder. Hangover anxiety and increased depression risk are also problems associated with drinking alcohol. 

Looking for tips to help curb or stop your drinking? See this post from the blog. 

Are you interested in learning more about what nutrition means for your mental health? Cerebral offers nutrition management services in select states. Try taking our nutrition assessment today.

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Expert Tips

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  • If you are in emotional distress, here are some resources for immediate help:

  • National Suicide Prevention Hotline:
    Call 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line:
    Text Home to 741-741
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